"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


the limits of forgiveness, part 2

In my post from the other day on the limits of forgiveness, I mentioned Xanana Gusmao, who serves as the first president of East Timor. My pastor (at least, I'm assuming it's my pastor as I don't know anyone else with those initials who can quote Reinhold Niebuhr at will) asked for more information about Gusmao in a comment. Since Gusmao is a fascinating figure who has a lot to teach us about forgiveness and the right use of political power, I thought I'd do that here.

I met Xanana Gusmao in the spring of 2001, six months before 9/11, eight months before deciding to pursue a PhD instead of working for the government, and two months before going to intern at the Senate. Forgive me for the details, but the context matters in this story.

Gusmao came to speak to our seminar, because he knew the professor and one of my colleagues, who had worked and researched in East Timor during its transition from Indonesian rule to independence, and because at Yale, if you read a book about a nasty, forgotten civil war and its leaders, naturally you have the future president of that country (along with the author of the book you've just read) visit your class. You get used to it after awhile.

The course was about genocide - what it looks like, how to identify it, why it happens, what to do afterwards - and it was awful. My friends and I would walk out of the class depressed, angry, and feeling hopeless about what could be done to prevent and stop future genocides. We read books and wrote papers about the Turks in Armenia, Cambodia, the Holocaust, and so many other awful incidents. Our weekly meetings consisted mostly of visits from outsiders; the authors of our books, friends of the professor. Most of the speakers were forgettable, except for the Belgian economist who spent 2 hours showing us his regression analyses of the liklihood of execution by a gun as opposed to a machete in Rwanda's Kibuye prefecture. (That is the only time at Yale I ever saw a presentation end and no one ask any questions - our jaws had all hit the floor in disbelief.)

Gusmao was different. But to understand Gusmao, you have to understand what happened in East Timor. Timor is an island that was colonized by the Portuguese, who were as reluctant to give up their Asian colonies as they were their African colonies, and only gave up control of Timor in 1974-75, when wars in Angola and Mozambique were causing Portugal too many headaches to keep it bothered with an Asian backwater. East Timor (which is, obviously, the eastern half of the island) declared independence, but was not recognized as independent by any other state, and was invaded a few days later by Indonesia.

The Indonesians treatment of East Timor is the reason we studied the case in a course on genocide. Over the years, according to Amnesty International's estimate, the Indonesian army killed up to 200,000 people, out of a population of 600,000. Proportionally, the East Timor genocide stands as one of the worst population massacres in proportional terms in history. 1/3 of East Timorese were murdered. With American weapons. (The topic of American arms sales to Suharto's regime in Indonesia is best left to someone who knows more about these things than I.)

In 1999, after much violence and a liberation struggle that lasted 24 years, East Timor held a referrendum on independence. Its citizens chose independence, and a peackeeeping mission moved into the country to keep the peace between independent East Timor and Indonesian West Timor.

It's more complicated than that (for one thing, turns out there's oil underneath the ocean in territory that was then in dispute - was it East Timorese or Australian?). But the long story short is that East Timor officially became independent in 2002. And Xanana Gusmao became its first president.

Gusmao was a leader in the liberation struggle. He served at times as a public spokesman for the struggle, telling the world about a particularly awful massacre in the early 1990's. The Indonesian government arrested and tried Gusmao and gave him a life sentence. He was in prison for nearly 6 years, but continued to be a leader in the resistance.

Gusmao came to see us less than two years after his release from prison. At the time, he was part of the UN's transitional authority in East Timor, the body that effectively governed the territory until elections were held.

Here was the man who stood before us: a man who had lived through the murder of 1/3 of his fellow citizens. A man who had fought for thirty years for Timorese independence (he was also involved in the opposition to colonial rule). A man who had been imprisoned by his oppressors for life, without a fair trial. And a man who had an incredible, electric personality, and a sense of deep peace about him.

When I think back on it, I think the man who stood before us was a living testimony to the power of forgiveness. Because he wasn't bitter. He didn't demonize the Indonesians, and he didn't complain about the past. His focus was on building a future for Timor, and on creating opportunities for development for the future.

A reporter from the Village Voice or some other fancy outlet in New York was there. "What does your country need most?" he asked, and we all expected to hear the standard answer we get from every Third World leader who traipses through those hallowed Ivy halls: money.

"Credit," replied Gusmao. My people need access to credit, so they can create businesses, so we can develop in a sustainable way.

We were floored. "That's the right answer," I thought, because then I was still young and naive and accepted the conventional wisdom about development we learned in our classes. Later I learned that he didn't want to be president, and would only become president a year later because, well, there kindof wasn't anyone else to do it.

How did this man become humble enough to not seek the office for which his countrymen selected him? How did Gusmao forgive his captors? How did he decide to move beyond what would have been an entirely justified desire for revenge? How could he not seek revenge against the country that killed 200,000 of his people?

Gusmao is not perfect, and things in East Timor are far from perfect. And I don't remember everything that happened that day in 2001. I remember that Jess and I cried as he told his story, so much so that we had to leave the room. I remember that sense of peace and joy in this man who'd chosen to forgive. I remember six months later, on an awful day when we could see the smoke from the Twin Towers, wondering about forgiveness and horror.

I don't know how he did it, and I certainly don't have a spirit of deep forgiveness like that in my heart. It's one thing to say, "I'm a sinner who's been forgiven, therefore I should forgive." That works for lies and meanness and bad drivers. It's another thing entirely to forgive those who are responsible for 200,000 deaths. Gusmao's example is one that those who struggle against injustice should remember. Forgiveness may have its limits. But those who chose to forgive seem to have the answer.


Anonymous kirstin said...

you do a really good job summarizing complicated things. this is a great example of that. thanks - that was an interesting read!

Friday, December 15, 2006 11:20:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

With respect, Amnesty's 200,000 figure includes death by starvation and disease. These are not "American weapons". I think we must give a bit more of the 'credit' to the Indonesians on this one!

Friday, December 15, 2006 6:59:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Fair enough, but would there have been nearly as many deaths by starvation and disease if the weapons hadn't been in the government's hands in the first place?

It's a similar situation in Congo (although there are more old Soviet weapons than anything else, from what I understand); most of the 4 million deaths from the war had nothing to do with actual fighting, and everything to do with the side effects of violence.

But you're right, I should've been more specific.

Friday, December 15, 2006 9:34:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

laura, thanks for this wonderful information...for engaging it so importantly in your own life...for struggling "aloud" on your blog with these terribly difficult issues.....rp (yes, that's me)

Saturday, December 16, 2006 11:30:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

thanks, r.

Sunday, December 17, 2006 2:55:00 PM


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